My sister and I were raised in the Foreign Service, living all but 5 years of our youth in Latin America and Europe. Our father, Robert C. Amerson, served in the United States Information Agency from 1955 to 1975; our mother, Nancy R. Amerson, was his partner throughout. They raised us to be fierce supporters of America's democratic ideals. This is how I see the world.
The last time I traveled to the Northeast, I took along a library book. It didn’t keep up with me: someone at the Red Lion Inn in the Berkshires got a good read, and the Palm Beach Country Library System got a new book. Ever since, I’ve packed a book I’ve already paid for.
Before our recent trip to Europe, I kept meaning to get to a bookstore: not the book section of Target or the paperbacks next to the magazines in the grocery store but an actual bookstore. Here was the problem: there is only one such business within 25 miles of our home — a Barnes and Nobles – and my pre-trip errands had me everywhere but there. I ended up shopping for reading at the airport, paying a ridiculous price for a couple of pretty good paperbacks, and at least supporting the writing business.
Then we landed in Amsterdam, a city that seemed to have a bookstore on every corner, and not just books in Dutch but in English and Italian and German. Two small used books shops were a block apart down Stengel from Hotel Estherea with a spot selling good reads and old-fashioned vinyl.
Around the corner, one shop specialized in just the kind of books I was looking for but not finding in my town. The American Book Center, the neighborhood bookstore I was looking for, 4,500 miles from home. And the best discovery of all was the Amsterdam Book Market that sets up outdoors every Friday, not just on sunny spring days like the one we enjoyed in May but every Friday year-round. Delightful.
I bought four books at the market: two sets of beautiful handmade paper book earrings, crafted by the mother of one of the book sellers. I wear mine to meetings of the Wellington West Boynton Writers Group, a “writers helping writers” group of the Florida Writers Association. The other set I gave to our group’s leader, mentor, coach, Caryn Gross-DeVincenti. We sport them well.
We’ll be back in Amsterdam next May, and cheerful literacy is just one reason!
Transplanted from the Northeast to South Florida, we luxuriated in the freshness of spring when we visited Paris and Amsterdam in May.
After the hustle of checking the sights off the list in Paris, it was heaven to wander through the Jardin du Luxembourg along with every other combination of families on a Sunday afternoon. The beehives and its neighboring the orchard have supported each other for more than 150 years. Flowers ran chaotic and dignified, lively accents to the carefully shaped hedges, while statuary looked sternly on.
While loads of fresh green grass beckoned, Parisians observe the rule my sister and I followed when we lived in Italy in the 60’s: no one walks on the lawns. Adults sit on the metal chairs provided on the stone walkways and children play with the pebbles.
We saw only one huge transgression: a sprawl of people laying out picnic blankets on two stretches of grass bordered by manicured trees. When I asked a passing parks employee if they were there for a reason, he said: “Yes. Because there it is allowed.”
The design around the Palais du Luxembourg is appropriately formal. It was built for Maria de Medici, the mother of Louis XIII, and currently houses the French Senate, the Parliament’s upper house. The charming boat pond seemed to have just the right number of vessels, complete with guiding sticks.
Everywhere, another scene: a high school jazz band played Big Band numbers in a gazebo as an appreciative audience looked on, including this woman who could have modeled for an artist of another era; a parade of children riding ponies; a couple quietly playing chess.
And everywhere, statues.
A week later, we found ourselves in Amsterdam’s Vondelpark, a sprawling tumble of peace and quiet just outside the canal rings and a short stroll from the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum. After the structure and intensity of Paris, we appreciated Amsterdam’s chill vibe. People were all over the lawn stretching along the Museumplein. A stream meandered through the park, bordered by wild irises.
And babies in Amsterdam are free to go barefoot and to get their clothes dirty.
This current Foreign Service family with two young children writes beautifully about the overseas experience. This piece talks about Home Leave, the time inbetween posts intended to keep families connected to the country they represent. It was the only experience of America my sister and I had until we were 12 and 10, when Dad was asssigned to DC.
We spent the last two weeks on the road in the western part of our country, reconnecting with friends in Salt Lake City, visiting a couple of national parks in Wyoming, soaking up Americana on July 4th, and exploring Idaho’s natural wonders – a beautiful state that had sneaked under our radar until now.
Photos, Giverny and Amsterdam, by author, May 2018.
My mother’s garden at my parents’ “terminal house” (a term coined by a couple who, like Mom and Dad, had called many places home) was plowed under and sodded over by the decidedly off-Cape people who bought the Brewster, MA place after Dad died unexpectedly. Losing him broke her heart, and it broke again when she saw what had become of her garden.
Mom lingered another two years at the assisted living place a couple of towns away before a merciful stroke took her to Dad’s side. We didn’t visit the old house during that time, and I’ve now moved 1,500 miles down the coast to Florida.
But I’d like to think that Mom’s daffodils and tulips pushed their way through the carpet of grass the following spring, and that the hollyhock seeds sown by the wind clambered skyward nonetheless. I hope that the rhododendron still spews its riot of lavender by the front door, and that azaleas continue roaring their blaze of fuschia through the dead oak leaves along the back woods. The money plants surely shake their shimmering parchment coins where last year’s crop held forth, and the wild roses are compelled to bloom along the split-rail fence that borders the road leading toward the shore. It’s impossible to smother nature.
I wished that Mom could have been with my husband and me during our visit to Amsterdam (too late to see tulips in bloom, but found some in a vase) and Paris in May, and especially when we visited Claude Monet’s home and gardens .
She would have delighted in the familiar nodding fistfuls of purple flox,
the blasts of outrageous red poppies,
the faded blooms of the azeleas as tender as old tissue paper.
Mom would have stood with us on the Japanese bridge over Monet’s water garden, peering through the cascading wisteria.
And we’d have sat in the shade of the weeping willow looking at the water lillies.
Mom’s gardening blossomed when Dad retired after 20 years in the Foreign Service and they moved to Cape Cod, where she created a perennial garden that lit up the cul-de-sac: zinnias, poppies, hollyhocks, black-eyed susans in the summer; and chrysanthemums and asters in the fall.
She had the space and the passion and no claim on her time that wasn’t her choice. She found kindred souls in the Garden Club of Brewster, and even took her turn leading the Club. Mom, a President after being the woman behind the Embassy man for all those years!
The nomadic life, and the role and responsibilities, of the diplomat didn’t lend itself to digging in the dirt and watching things grow. Although the weather was eternally spring in Caracas (1955-59) she was a new Foreign Service wife, learning the trade and how to be the señora to our maid Fina and Mommy to my little sister and me. Then, we were in an apartment and barely into the growing season in Milan (1959-60 ) when orders came that we were to go to Bologna (1960-61), where the landlord maintained a dismal rose garden. In Rome (1961-63), the balconies were shaded and narrow, and the Embassy requirements were demanding. The position in Bogota (1963-66) came with a house and garden, but they were maintained by designated staff.
We all changed gears when Dad was assigned to the State Department (1966-71). Mom and Dad bought their first house, and the split level in Potomac Woods was soon ablaze in spring azeleas to match the flower dogwoods and fall chrysanthemums. We had no staff for Mom to work around, although I imagine that she would have appreciated some weeding help. My sister and I were up to our necks being genuine American teenagers and way too self-concerned to have noticed.
We were back overseas in 1971, this time in Madrid. Again, a house and garden came with the job, but the señora de la casa couldn’t garden: that was the gardener’s job, just as the housework and the cooking and the washing and ironing were jobs our live-in maids depended on for their families’ income.
In 1973, after a brief home leave, I stayed in the United States for college while my sister and parents flew off to the next post. Amazingly, it was Rome (1973-77), again, and this time the apartment that came with the job had an enormous terrace where potted plants could thrive.
Dad’s last Foreign Service assignment was serving as the Edward R. Murrow Fellow at Tuft’s University’s Fletcher School. Mom and Dad sold the house in Potomac Woods that they’d rented out when we went back overseas and bought a place in Boston overlooking Storrow Drive. Amazing spot, zero outdoors, but the Commons Garden around the corner was a great consolation prize. She got her gardening gloves back on at the summer home they bought in Sea Pines on Cape Cod, a place that stayed in the family when Mom and Dad found their “terminal home” down the road.
Mom would have known the names of all the flowers in these pictures. I should have paid more attention. But I picked up on the passion: I’ve grown an avocado and a mango tree from pits, our citrus tree produces lemons and limes six months a year, and we had to remove a banana plant, a passion fruit vine, and a coconut palm because they were taking over. Maybe it’s South Florida’s tropical environment. Or maybe Mom’s gardening magic is in the air.
King George said of the American colonists: “…everyone who disagrees with me is a traitor…” Today, we celebrate the declaration that our government power lies with the people, not one individual, be it a King ….
… or a Fuhrer….
…or a president…..
…and that we are guaranteed the freedom of assembly and the freedom of speech……
…and the freedom of the press….
…and that the laws of the land represent the will of the people.
The drafters of the Declaration of Independence wrote: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
America’s Foreign Service representatives abroad (see previous post The Professional Diplomat ) pledge their loyalty to the country that was born on July 4, 1776. In November, we must vote for the people who remain true to those same ideals.
At 2AM July 3, 1955, my parents and I, a 8 month-old, arrived at the seaside airport down the mountains from Caracas. It had been a marathon: driving up to NYC from DC, where they’d had two months of orientation training, leaving the car at loading docks, and taking our 10 pieces of luggage to the Pan Am Strato Cruiser for what turned out to be a 12 hour flight. Despite her exhaustion, Mom sat down to write to her parents, a habit that would continue for Dad’s entire Foreign Service career.
Hotel Potomac, Caracas, July 3, 1955 Dear Mother and Dad: All day today we’ve been just congratulating ourselves on having arrived, after so many weeks of planning and working toward that end….
A day later, on Venezuelan Independence Day, she set down in another letter about how the American Independence Day seemed to be done in Caracas. She was an outsider, sharing her observations with perhaps more enthusiasm than she could yet feel.
Caracas, July 5, 1955 Dear Mother and Dad: Yesterday was the Ambassador’s reception to celebrate the 4th. Bob went and had a good chance to meet many of the local Venezuelan press and radio people. The other Embassy people were very nice, including a young fellow named Al Hanson [see note] who is a trainee for this type of work. The big formal dance was last night, but we passed it up; baby sitting problem most of all but we didn’t mind just being alone. From what we hear of the amount of work to be done, it is good that Bob has this period without worries. We know we’re going to enjoy this stuff very much….
By the following year, our live-in maid Josefina had become a part of our home, in large part to care for me when Mom had Foreign Service Wife duties during the day and social networking duties in the evening with Dad. She was in her first trimester of pregnancy with my sister, but the stomach muscles she’d honed while teaching and performing modern dance must have kept her waist small enough to still fit into a maid of honor dress from Minnesota.
Caracas, July 2, 1956. Dear Mother and Dad: Did I tell you we are going to the 4th of July dance? Great fancy doings and at last I’m breaking out the raspberry red dress from Mary’s [Caldwell Mudge] wedding.”
A year later, Mom was no longer the newest arrival among the Foreign Service wives, and her perspective on the events at the Ambassador’s Residence reflected her understanding of the job.
Caracas, July 1957 Dear Mother and Dad: The reception was a big success. Mrs. McIntosh had a huge tent covering the inner garden at the Residence with good protection from both the sun and rain. We went up at 9:00 to get ready with things like arranging the receiving flowers. So many of the government bigwigs send gorgeous flower pieces and it is a job listing them (for thank yous) and then finding the proper place in the house. That in itself is an art, as the most important people must have their flowers displayed in the most important spots …Then there was constant work on sandwiches. We had each made 100 small, closed ones and they had to be arranged on the trays for passing, and later in the day they were cut in half to make enough to go around…
By our last summer in Caracas, the event had mushroomed, and Mom was an experienced participant.
Caracas July 2, 1958 Dear Mother and Dad: Well, the 4th of July is nearly upon us and that means preparations for the big Embassy reception. This year our part has been to help make 2,200 sandwiches; the new Ambassador’s wife has been considerate of our pocket books and furnished the fixings. This thing is really done on a big scale, you know. There are some 8,000 North Americans though only about 1,500 show up as it is held over the noon hour; hate to think how many would come if it were at night…
Mom was in the last generation of Foreign Service wives who assumed they’d be unpaid helpmates to their husbands. I think connecting the women to each other in this type of assignment built a community among them. Mom recalled that no one had a telephone so planning and carrying out what was asked of them meant spending time in each other’s homes. By the time we left, both Mom and Dad felt the Embassy group was as close as family. They genuinely enjoyed each other’s company and there was a special connection that continued for the rest of their lives.
The “young fellow named Al Hanson” that Dad met at the Ambassador’s residence on July 4, 1955 was Allen C. Hansen, another USIA recruit who’d been in Caracas about a year. He became a close friend, as did the whole group at the Embassy, and the connection continued for decades. Al’s 1988 interview with Dad about his career in USIA is a treasure of information and insight. It, along with hundreds of other interviews with American diplomats, is on the remarkable oral history pages of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training.
Al is the author of five books, including Nine Lives: A Foreign Service Odyssey which I have by my bedside table. In it, I learned that Mom and Dad had been witnesses to Al’s marriage to Charmaine. I spoke with Al just today, delighted that we’ve found a way to keep the connection.
At least a couple of times a month, the Collecting Postcards blog receives questions via social media or email. Although I always answer readers directly, I have also wanted to address repeat questions more broadly by turning them into blog topics. I tried this in August 2015 with a feature I called “Your Questions Answered,” but lapsed in keeping it going. I’m going to try to relaunch it, so here are a few recent questions I’ve received: about access to American “stuff” while overseas, coping with distance from loved ones, making home wherever you lay your head, and balancing official duties with personal beliefs. Go ahead, ask a diplomat!
When I was nine, I thought I’d become an archeologist when I grew up. We lived in Rome, and so the evidence that such a job existed was all around me. One of my friends had her birthday party in the Forum. The school bus took us to the Overseas School of Rome via the Appian Way, a road built in 300 BC. Our third-grade field trip was to the Etruscan ruins about an hour out of the city.
Archeology was also a family hobby. My parents, sister and I spent a couple of Sundays each year digging for pottery shards on Monte Cattini, a 2000 year-old garbage dump covered in a millennia of dirt and grass. The half-dozen amphorae handles that we unearthed decorated the bookcases in our Roman apartment. When we moved to Bogotá, they took up residence on the fireplace mantle, and they lay on the hearth of the Maryland family room when we moved to the States. Before we exited back overseas, my mother buried a couple of the pieces in the back yard sandbox: “That’ll make someone wonder!” Indeed.
My romance with archeology and the ancient Romans faded when we left Italy. In Colombia, we attended the English School, where history focussed on such things as “when we lost the colonies,” a topic my sister and discussed at the dinner table without irony. My mother said, “Honey, we ARE the colonies,” and we discovered that for ourselves when Dad was next assigned to work at the USIA headquarters in Washington, DC. My passion for figuring out the past through discarded artifacts was extinguished as I tried hard to blend in to the American present.
I found myself regaining my interest in archeology – albeit of a different sort – when my husband and I recently enjoyed some down time in Juno Beach, a small town about 45 minutes north of our home in South Florida.
Juno and its neighboring town of Jupiter share a nine and a half-mile stretch of sea front that includes Dog Beach, so named for its permitting canines off leash year-round. Our dog, Django, was a huge fan, and we released his ashes to mingle with the salt and sand when he died after Thanksgiving last year.
We donated on Django’s behalf to Friends of Jupiter Beach, a non-profit tasked with maintaining the nine and a half-miles free of garbage. The organic stuff is not the problem: dog owners are shamed into picking up after their pets, and there are plenty of poop bag stands.
The much more challenging clean-up is plastic, the insidious eternal material that clogs the seas. Each month, Friends of Jupiter Beach organizes a pick-up event during which hundreds of volunteers fan out along the shore with gloves and pails to collect whatever mankind has left behind: since 2006, they’ve removed 65,000 pounds of garbage.
I do my part whenever I’m on the beach, and archeology accompanies my forays. Here are the remnants I found during our recent visit, and what it told me about us.
We eat and drink on-the-go: plastic baggies remnants, a Gatorade bottle, a plastic spoon, a plastic lid to a disposable coffee cup, pieces of styrofoam coffee cup, a plastic lid and straw for a large soda cup, various pieces of cellophane, and piece of gum the color of lapis lazuli that, in another setting, could have been an Roman mosaic.
We fish here: a tangle of fishing line, hard plastic pieces of a bait box.
Children play here: a plastic sand pail handle.
Duct tape fixes everything: a weathered strip of duct tape.
Mice sunbathe: I have other no explanation for a fluid-filled tiny plastic cushion.
None of this should have been left on the beach. Any of this can kill.
And there’s a reason to be concerned with plastics on this particular stretch of beach along Florida’s east coast: it sees the second largest number of nesting sea turtles in the world each year.
The Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Juno Beach patrols the beach during nesting season, rehabilitates injured sea turtles in a unique hospital that is on the leading edge of marine medical science, and reaches hundreds of thousands of people every year with education programs that reaches hundreds of thousands of people each year.
My husband and I are now part of those thousands, having participated in an LMC Turtle Walk. By the light of a full moon and a strategically positioned turtle-neutral red flashlight, we silently witnessed a huge Loggerhead female leave the sea, dig a two-foot hole, deposit a hundred eggs, and walk back down to the sea, never to see the hatchlings when they emerge in three months to begin a long, unlikely battle to live. One in 1,000 will make it to adulthood. The females will return to the same beach in 25 years and repeat the cycle.
But the odds are against them. Predators and the elements are a perpetual risk, but plastic is now as well. According to the Center for Biological Diversity not one square mile of surface ocean anywhere on earth is free of plastic pollution, and sea turtles are particularly vulnerable. Loggerheads, like the turtle we saw, eat plastic bags, Styrofoam and fishing lines, which block, ulcerate and perforate their internal organs, leading to illness and even death.
The Loggerhead Marinelife Center has treated, rehabilitated and released hundreds of sea turtles. In March, they took in an anemic, starving Loggerhead and successfully treated him with antibiotics, vitamins and minerals, and rich nutrition.
He was nicknamed Guy Harvey in honor of the artist, scientist, diver, angler, conservationist and explorer.
More than 1,000 people turned out for his public release back to the ocean last week, and, thanks to a well-timed walk, I was one more witness.
Awesome happens all around us. We just need to stay out of the way. The LMC’s Blue Table Restaurant Program supports restaurants that no longer use Styrofoam or plastic bags in take-out, and that provide straws and plastic utensils only upon request. Its cafe sells boxed water. Its gift shop offers guests reusable bags.
Amsterdam, which we visited in May, is also working to eliminate plastic garbage. Some shops charge for plastic bags and others don’t bag at all: Marqt, a cool Whole Foods on steroids, sold me this bag which folds into the size of a deck of cards, unfolds to sturdily hold a cannonball watermelon, a big papaya, and five cans of beans, and is made from two plastic water bottles!
The take-out pancakes we got at the The Happy Pig Pancake Shop came in a recyclable paper container with recyclable utensils.
Delicious and sustainable living is one reason that we’ll be going back to Amsterdam next year. In the meantime, we’ll aim for fewer plastic bottles in our recycling bin and a lot more walks on the beach.
Behavior matters,especially when you’re in a Foreign Service family.
After Dad’s initial four years in balmy Caracas, we moved in 1959 to Milan, where there were strict rules governing how things were done. Although Dad’s job at the USIA office required my mother to be available for after-hours socializing and cultural events, finding a live-in maid proved difficult. In the meantime, she did our laundry by hand and hung it to dry on clothes lines my father had strung up in the large marble-floored bathroom. To expedite things, Mom opened the bathroom windows which opened on an interior courtyard. That lasted about a day: the landlord came up to say that the neighbors across the way were offended by the sight of drying clothes. The signora’s ragazza should know that clothes were to be dried on the roof. Mom just nodded. Lesson One in how things were done in Italy.
Lesson Two came via the large terrazza outside my parents’ bedroom which accumulated soot daily from Milan’s dirty air. One rainy day, Mom decided it was time to clean it. She filled a pail, took off her shoes, put on her raincoat and got to work. She looked up from her task a few minutes later to find the Contessa who lived on the next floor down watching her from her own balcony, open-mouthed, a cup of tea in her hand. Mom smiled, nodded and finished the job. The next day, she watched as the Contessa’s maid emerged briefly onto the three-by-five balcony to dust the table and chair, followed by a butler delivering a tray of tea and a newspaper, followed by the Contessa herself. Lesson Two.
Lesson Three was demonstrated by the woman my mother eventually found to be our live-in maid. Maria Pia was a country girl but a social climber in the making. The first morning she worked for us Mom asked her to get some ciliori from the pasticerria on the next block. Maria Pia said, “Va bene,” and went to her room, although her coat was hung on the tacapani next to the front door. She came clicking back down the hall in high heels and she had changed from her blue and white uniform into a party dress. Mom’s eyebrows went up and her lips pressed together into a small smile.
Italy was governed by la bella figura and la brutta figura. No matter ones station in life, women wore the right color coat, the right length skirt, the right poofy hairdo. And it didn’t matter whether you were throwing out the garbage or shopping in Milan’s Galeria Del Duomo.
Behavior mattered. As we moved from Milan to Bologna to Rome between 1959 and 1963, my sister and I learned that in Italy you shake hands, but in America you don’t. You could chew gum at home but not gum or food on the street. You said Ciao to friends and Arrivederci to grown ups. You spoke English with each other and Italian with everyone else. In sum, you acted like our hosts acted. American visitors didn’t know these rules. American tourists and Study Abroad students wore shorts and blue jeans, spoke loudly in English, and stepped over the little iron fences bordering park walkways to have picnics on the grass. We usually pretended we were Italian when we passed them. Brutta figura.
The Amerson family behavior was defined, to some extent, by the rules of diplomacy. In the aftermath of WWII and into the Cold War, David Brooks writes, the relationships America developed “built organizations and alliances to fight communism, create a stable trading system, combat poverty and promote democracy.” Thomas L. Friedman notes: “[t]he world came to rely on an America that, more often than not, [was] ready to pay any price and bear any burden to do the right things, say that right things, model the right things and stand for the right things — when others were unwilling or unable to do.”
Foreign Service officers like my father have served both Democratic and Republican administrations in faithfully carrying out America’s mission. Not every White House has carried the standard as gracefully as the professional diplomatic corps — Dad recalled Vice President’s Lyndon Johnson’s legendary ego translating into American arrogance during his visits to Rome — but the postwar order has prevailed.
But now? We are far from la bella figura. President Trump has taken American arrogance to a whole other level: discarding democratic allies, cozying up to autocrats, blowing off historical partnerships and disregarding advice, he spins chaotically around the globe, arms folded and chin out. According to the White House, the Trump Doctrine boils down to: “We’re America, Bitches.” There’s no amount of diplomacy that can surmount such a statement.
Until Congress is willing to bear the burden and pay the price of standing up for the right thing, la brutta figura rules the White House. Is it too much to hope that la bella figura steps up in November?
My husband and I recently spent two weeks in Paris and Amsterdam, enjoying the BBC instead of the litany of talking heads that is now American news. It was refreshing to be reminded that there is a whole lot more to talk about than Trump, and that there is an entire globe-worth of countries that are not the USA. The lead story (okay, besides The Wedding) was that underdog Fiji was leading the international rugby field. Filling out on-line forms while traveling is another reminder that America isn’t at the top of the country list: you have to scroll down to the bottom, where United States of America falls between Uganda and Uruguay. In the listing of languages, it is not the American, but rather the British, flag which represents “English.” Oh, right, that’s where we got it.
There are other lists that we aren’t first on.The time we spent in Amsterdam also reminded us that the Netherlands and its fellow Baltic countries are among the top ten on the2018 World Happiness Report . Maybe the happiest of all are those who take a puff or two in Amsterdam’s coffeeshops, and its Red Light District sure makes people smiley: “My, such a lifelike mannequin, oh my God that’s a woman.” The 2018 World Happiness Report focusses on immigration: countries in which immigrants can partake in a country’s quality of life score high on happiness. That’s what get’s you in the Top Ten. With walls at our borders, labelling immigrants as dangerous, and pulling families apart, it’s a wonder that we are even 18th on the Happiness Report.
The list that I find even more startling is Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index. Ten years ago, we were solidly in the middle of the Full Democracy pack, behind but not divorced from the Nordic countries and our English-speaking allies, England and Canada. Today, we are but one of 50-some Flawed Democracies, a list that includes African, Caribbean and Latin American countries that our Trump referred to as “shitholes.” We are among countries with low political participation, a failing electoral process, diminishing trust in government, and endangered civil liberties.
How is it possible that the United States of America, the country that my father proudly represented for his two decades in the Foreign Service, is no longer the world’s leading democracy, nor, in fact, a Full Democracy at all? What has happened to slide us down the scale to Flawed Democracy?
It is tempting to point the finger at Trump. But he is not the cause of our malaise: he is simply the beneficiary.
The Economist finds that Americans’ trust in government has been sliding downhill since the 1960’s, taking our political confidence with it. We’ve been worn down by the Vietnam war, the civil rights movement, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, civil unrest, Watergate, disastrous wars in the Middle East, the financial crash of 2008, the gridlock and dysfunction on Capitol Hill. And the pillars of middle America — jobs, churches, labor unions — crumbled. The system had failed us. We stopped goingto the polls.
Then Trump came along, promising to Make American Great Again, and he rode the hopes of the politically disenfranchised right to the White House. It’s been the War of the Red and Blue ever since.
The Netherlands has the opposite approach to governance. Rather than be defined by ethnicity, religious and other strata, the Dutch reconcile their differences in order to stabilize government. They consciously develop and maintain power-sharing arrangements in order to reduce strife and promote non-violence. The very survival of democracy trumps all. Wikipedia calls it Consociationalism.
Yes, the word’s way too close to socialism and hard to pronounce, but the concepts are not foreign. I believe that Americans care more for our country than we do for our separate camps. Recently, two Washington Post columnists spoke of unity: EJ Dionne from the left said: “…we believe in a government that answers to the aspirations of the vast majority…” Speaking from the right, David Brooks said: “Red or blue, we are stuck together permanently in this country. And as the saying goes, the only way to get out of this mess is to get into it.”
We must approach each other without raising our voices to find and built on common ground. It’s a mess. Let’s dive in. It’s the least a full democracy asks of us.